Skip to main content

The Neuroscience of Risky Decision Making is a 2014 book co-authored by Dr. Valerie Reyna and Vivian Zayas and published by the American Psychological Association. The book compiles the findings of a number of neurological researchers on the subject of risk taking and human choices in general.

Various sections of the book describe how children, adolescents, and the elderly make decisions.This allows the authors to compare and contrast the risk taking behaviors of different age groups. It also allows them to show how the human brain evolved over the course of people’s lives.

The book has applications for a wide range of human behaviors including addiction, consumerism, and pathological gambling among others. Using MRI imaging, Dr. Valerie Reyna and her colleagues show the parts of the brain that have to do with risk taking. In doing so, they show how complicated the risky decision making is. They also show that preconceived notions about how people take risk do not always apply.

Neuroeconomics, Neurodevelopment, and Neuropsychology

The book itself is complicated to read, with different chapters written by various researchers. Reyna and Zayas divided the book into three sections: neuroeconomics, neurodevelopment, and neuropsychology. 

Dr. Reyna, who is best known for developing Fuzzy Trace Theory, reminds the reader that risk taking is not always bad. In fact, it involves how one calculates upside potential and downside risk. While much of the section discusses how risk taking leads to human suffering, bad choices, and mortality; it also leads to success in the business world, academics, and personal relationships.

Neuroeconomics is the neurological study of rewards and impulsivity, which in many ways challenges the foundations of conventional economic theory.

Neurodevelopment is the study of how risk taking changes over a lifetime. The Neuroscience of Risk Decision Making focuses on development and old age. In this section of the book, the researchers discuss the adolescent sensation-seeking period. They describe how risk, rewards, and cognitive control develop in both pre-pubescent children and maturing teenagers.

Neuropsychology is the study of how the brain deals with delays in gratification. This section of the book discusses classic decision making trials, such as the “dual systems” theory of decision making and the Marshmallow Test.

Samantha M.W. Wood and Antoine Bechara, famous for the Iowa Gambling Test, suggest that a dual system is actually a “triple system”, where the impulsive and reflective parts of the brain are joined by a third system within the brain. This third system involves urges and cravings, which often are triggered by stress and deprivation. Bechara and Wood describe an “imbalance” in this system of cravings as the ultimate source of addiction.

The Neurology of Addiction

This imbalance makes a person hypersensitive to rewards. MRI studies of brain activity even shows that impairment to a certain part of the brain (the insula) leads to a lessening of addiction in some subjects. For instance, smokers are 8 times more likely to quit if they have less activity in the insula.

Many studies of compulsive behavior in the past have focused on personal psychology. No doubt, a person’s childhood experiences imprint on their inner psychology, which affects whether they might develop addictions to alcohol, drugs, gambling, shopping, food, or sex. What neurological studies do is show how experience is affected by one’s brain activity.

In this regard Dr. Marc Potenza from the Yale School of Medicine has made extensive research with Yale’s Gambling CORE program

How the Human Brain Works

In a 2014 lecture on her book, Dr. Reyna discussed how perception affects decision making. It’s common, said Reyna, that people assume addicts and risk takers don’t perceive risk the way others do. That’s wrong; those prone to risky behaviors have no trouble perceiving risk. It’s often believed that those who take big risks might not know how to calculate risk properly, but Reyna says that research proves those assumptions wrong.

Instead, Reyna suggested that our “representation of reality” has a major effect on our decision to take risks. How humans perceive their options is most important. Convention theory suggests two parts of the human persona: the cognitive (or deliberative) part and the emotional part. Dr. Reyna suggests that phenomenology, or the study of consciousness as experienced by the first-person point-of-view, is key to our understanding.

Thus, a person’s perception of their cravings, their deprivation, or their stress have much to do with risk taking. Under stress or deprivation, this third mode has as much to do with decision making as cognitive abilities or emotional states. This makes decision making far more complicated than a simple either-or proposition.

This explains the basic lack of consistency in people’s decision making – what scientists call impulsivity. Dr. Reyna describes this third mode as “the springboard to action”, because it’s correlated to impulsivity.

Studies of the Default Mode Network

To arrive at her conclusions, Dr. Reyna studied the “default mode network”, described by ScienceDirect as “that part of the brain that is active when a person is not focused on the outside world“. The default mode network consists of several parts of the brain that light up under MRI observation when a person is focused on his or her internal world. In particular, they study adolescents.

Dr. Reyna points out that lab studies predict what people will do in a real world setting. To make these predictions, her researchers studied both incarcerated adolescents and those who were not incarcerated. Then Reyna and her colleagues studied the differences between the two groups.

The brain activity of those deemed healthy adolescents and the less impulsive incarcerated adolescents closely resembled adult brain functions. Meanwhile, the more impulsive incarcerated adolescents displayed the opposite pattern. This predicted impulsivity in youths. For instance, they responded positively to statements like, “I enjoy gambling for high stakes” or displays of money slots images. 

Control Actions and Attention Studies

The default mode network is more focused on the interior and on memories. It’s also closely associated with daydreaming and the mind wandering. Thus, it is a big part of one’s inner life.

Brain imaging shows that those who are impulsive have more active default mode networks. The brain activity of those who are less impulsive is correlated more with the attention and control parts of the brain. In short, the brains of adolescents with more control tend to work more like adult brains.

Studies of the Ventral Striatum

The Marshmallow Test is a famous study of delayed gratification first performed by Walter Mischel on children in 1972. Children were offered a single marshmallow immediately, but they were given the choice of waiting 15 minutes to receive two marshmallows. Follow-up studies showed that children who delayed gratification performed better on the SATs, educational attainment, body-mass index, and other tests.

More recent neurological studies of similar gratification tests focused on the ventral striatum, a part of the brain associated with decision making and reward-related behavior. The study revealed that people who reacted to a smiling face in the test were more likely to be impulsive. This suggests that impulsivity is related to social incentives. These social interactions often relate to peer pressure, but can also be related to advertising and other such stimuli.

Peer Pressure and Self-Control

Studies of the ventral striatum focus on what pushes people’s buttons. Group pressure has a big effect on risky decisions. Dr. Reyna pointed out that is why laws exist that limit the number of passengers in a car with a youthful driver, because studies show they take more risks when the car is full of their peers.

Luna, Padmanabhan, and Geier further studied adolescent behavior. They found that one can condition youth behavior to be more like adults (or less impulsive), but it requires a system of incentives, motivations, and rewards. In effects, adolescents can mirror at adult levels of control in incentive trials, but not in neutral trials. By studying the ventral striatum, scientists nailed down that the reward approach can teach kids better self-control.

Decision Making in Older Adults

Samenez-Larkin & Knutson studied the other end of the spectrum: risk taking in older adults. Their research had surprising results. For one, rewards have a diminished effect in senior citizens.

The researchers studied the dorsal striatum and anterior insula in older adults when they were anticipating monetary loss.They found that learning about new rewards declines in aging people, due to declines in connectivity of the prefrontal cortex to the striatum.

How Gist Memory Works

This has its advantages and disadvantages. For instance, it impairs risky decision making in both laboratory and real world studies of older adults. An older person’s experience and vocabulary go up, but their fluid intelligence goes down. They can regulate their emotions better, which makes risk taking less likely.

Instead, older people rely on “Gist Memory“. The human brain has an amazing capacity to function despite the ravages of time. Gist memory has a lot to do with people’s ability to function at a high level as they get older. Instead of learning new skills and coping mechanisms, they use a shorthand to make decisions that limits risk taking.

Dr. Reyna describes gist memory as “memory for essential meaning, the ‘substance’ of information irrespective of exact words, numbers, or pictures. Hence, gist is a symbolic, mental representation of the stimulus that captures meaning.”

Wisdom and Naivete in Senior Citizens

In earlier times, Reyna jokes that gist memory was called “wisdom“. An older person might not understand exact words and numbers as well, but they draw upon a residue of experience to arrive at decisions in a simplified manner.

On the upside, older people in general don’t take as many risks. On the downside, older people are less likely to learn from new experiences. This explains why older people are often prone to scam artists. They are not more gullible than they were before, but they don’t learn from experience to avoid scams.

Human Decision Making Changes throughout Life

The Neuroscience of Risky Decision Making makes clear that the human decision making changes throughout a lifetime. Dr. Reyna notes that people’s experiences, emotional and psychological wellness, and ability to learn from experience affects decision making at every stage. What the MRI research by Reyna and her colleagues shows is that brain activity has a direct effect on the other factors in human decision making processes. 

Leave a Reply